Originally created 09/17/06

Uranium plants get jolt from nuclear comeback

TICABOO, Utah - The last U.S. uranium mill ever built in this parched landscape near Lake Powell, shut down almost as quickly as it started operating as nuclear power fell into disfavor about two decades ago.

Keith Larsen, the chief executive for U.S. Energy Corp., picked up the mill 10 years later for practically nothing, banking it for better days. His patience paid off, making Mr. Larsen's company one of the few already taking profits out of a new uranium boom.

His mothballed mill, once a liability, became a $90 million asset with mining claims - the deal he made to sell the package to Toronto-based SXR Uranium One Inc. by the end of the year.

Suddenly, nuclear power is back in demand as a relatively cheap, reliable and emissions-free solution to the world's insatiable demand for energy. Even some leading environmentalists have endorsed nuclear power as an antidote to global warming. More than 50 nuclear plants are planned or under construction in a dozen countries, according to U.S. and international nuclear agencies.

The nuclear comeback has reinvigorated a Western mining industry that, during the 1950s and again in the 1970s, was the stuff of legends. Uranium claims - which grant an exclusive right to mine a piece of federal land - were bought and sold like stock.

The successive booms made millionaires, losers and overnight towns. It also left some environmental damage, including a huge pile of radioactive uranium tailings that the government has promised to move from a bank of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

Today's boom doesn't have people running around with Geiger counters. For the most part, the West's uranium deposits are known, mapped and claimed.

"It's nothing like it used to be," said Moab Mayor David Sakrison, whose town has been transformed into a recreational playground. "It's a different community. We're more tourist oriented. A lot of the people who lived here in the 1970s have moved away. It's a new cast of characters."

The first Western uranium boom answered a call in 1948 for domestic uranium stockpiles for atomic bombs.

By the 1970s, demand from nuclear power plants was picking up, until the partial meltdown of a Three Mile Island reactor in 1979 signaled a shift in public acceptance.

The Ticaboo mill opened in 1982, just in time to watch the bottom fall out of the uranium market. Utilities were canceling orders for new nuclear plants. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Russia further tarnished nuclear power.

Two decades later, the spot price for milled uranium yellowcake has jumped sharply to $52 a pound after bottoming out at $7 in 2001. Higher prices have motivated thousands to snatch up expired uranium claims and wildcatters to sink test drills in places where it's a good bet.

"If you find one of those ore bodies, it's a valuable asset," said geologist Richard Dorman, the exploration manager for British Columbia-based Universal Uranium Ltd.

Mr. Dorman started a second round of drilling this month on a largely unexplored side of Lisbon Valley near Moab, about 314 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Over 40 years, more than 80 million pounds of uranium ore were taken from Lisbon Valley.

Not far away, International Uranium Corp. operates the only working U.S. uranium mill, near Blanding, Utah, which has been surviving for years on "alternate feeds," processing contaminated soil or radioactive ore from others trying to get rid of it.

Ron Hochstein, the president and chief executive officer, says the company plans to resume mining uranium ore at a dozen locations in northern Arizona.

Uranium production has a future again, though the nation hasn't solved the disposal problem for spent fuel rods, said John D. Parkyn, the chairman and chief executive of Private Fuel Storage, a group of nuclear-power utilities blocked by federal authorities from opening a temporary repository at an American Indian reservation in Utah's west desert.

A more permanent repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, not scheduled to open until 2017 - 19 years late - might never open, he says, "Presidents come and go, and some of them slowed it down."

That hasn't stopped utilities from making plans to open or add nuclear plants, however.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says U.S. utilities are looking at building as many as 27 reactors, and it just licensed a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment plant near Eunice, N.M., where a groundbreaking was held Aug. 29.

The nation's 103 operating nuclear power plants already are operating on dwindling stockpiles of uranium - some of it converted from Russian bombs - while energy-hungry China and India are rushing to build their own nuclear power plants.


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